Phonics vs. Whole-Language Learning: Why Not Both? – Reading Essentials #13

Phonics vs. Whole Language Learning: Why Not Both?Educators have long debated whether phonics-based or whole language-based instruction leads to the most effective reading instruction.

Those who argue for a phonics-based “bottom up” approach point to the importance of auditory skills and phonological awareness in reading development. Knowing basic phonetic rules helps children learn to sound out words they might otherwise not know.

Those in favor of whole language, or a “top down” approach, see phonics instruction as perhaps slowing the process down, and argue that beginning readers should focus on meaning and vocabulary in a literacy rich environment, learning to recognize entire words as whole units.

Today, however, there seems to be consensus that no single approach is best for every child. The International Reading Association has stated that effective phonics instruction is important as part of a complete reading and language arts program. It is necessary, but it isn’t the only piece.

Most educators now use a district-mandated language arts curriculum that incorporates a balance between the two strategies, understanding that phonics instruction can be beneficial for learning letter sounds and for deciphering new words. Then, as developing readers become more proficient, instruction can rely less on phonics and more on whole word recognition. A variety of strategies are taught and children are exposed to many forms of literature.

Keep in mind that if your child is struggling with learning to read, any supplemental help you get should include both phonics and whole word instruction. Online reading programs like Red Apple Reading, for example, teach reading with a combination of phonics, sight words, and word family lessons. In this way your child is getting a balance of both phonics and whole language instruction, increasing the likelihood for reading success.

As your child becomes comfortable with sight words, you can encourage the transition toward whole word reading. Once your child has the phonics skills to attempt to sound out longer words, he or she will quickly discover that most words are not phonetically regular! This can lead to frustration–but can be an opportunity to introduce alternate reading strategies, such as:

  • Guessing words from context: If your child encounters an unknown word ask him to make a guess about the word, based on what would “make sense.” For example, if you are reading a book called “I Like Toys,” and the first sentence is “I have a (toy),” and your child cannot sound out the word toy, remind him of the title of the story. You can also give a phonics “hint” by pointing to the “t” at the beginning of the word and making the /t/ sound. With the beginning sound and a prompt to think about what word would make sense, a child will most likely be able to produce the correct word.
  • Looking at pictures: Using the same example, if your child was stuck on the word “toy,” you could point to the picture accompanying the text and ask your child to guess based on what is illustrated.
  • Skipping and returning: In the example sentence, if a child knew or guessed the words “I,” “a,” and “toy,” but was stuck on the word “have,” you could suggest a “skipping and returning” strategy. Tell your child to skip the word “have” and read the rest of the sentence. Then return and look at the sentence as a whole, reading it as “I /h/— a toy.”  Then ask your child what word would make sense.

As your child encounters more new words through reading, the words will become increasingly familiar, and will soon be read automatically. This will enable your child to read more complex text and longer and more complicated words.

What are your thoughts on the best strategies for teaching reading? We’d love to hear from you.

The Flipped Classroom: Turning the School Day Upside Down

The Flipped Classroom: Turning the School Day Upside DownWhen my oldest child Kelsey was a toddler, she was a stickler for schedules. If we did something spontaneous or outside of our regular routine, she would tell me that things felt “topsy turvy.” I’m guessing that this is how some students and teachers are feeling about the latest trend to hit the education realm—the flipped classroom.

What Is the Flipped Classroom?
Using video recording technology and Internet connectivity, some teachers (and entire schools) are adopting a form of blended learning which allows students to listen to lectures at home from their computers or tablets and then complete assignments and participate in activities and discussions in class. In this “flipped model,” the theory is that students will no longer have to listen to boring lectures while struggling to take notes and retain information simultaneously, and they will no longer have to do assignments on their own at home without the teacher’s assistance. Instead, they will have the luxury of listening to lectures at their own pace, pausing and reviewing as necessary, and then completing their assignments in the classroom where they can ask for the teacher’s assistance. They will also have more time to collaborate with their peers on a project related to the lecture topic. View a Flipped Classroom Infographic here.

Pros and Cons of the Flipped Classroom
If this trend catches on, and it’s looking like it might, then only time will tell whether the model is an effective one. However, from the perspective of a teacher, a parent, and a former student myself, I can see both advantages and disadvantages to a flipped classroom.


  • Recorded lectures. Oh, what I would have given for video lectures of my high school physics class! I could barely keep up with the teacher, despite how hard I tried, and as a result, was completely lost when it came time for me to complete my homework at night. I can definitely see the benefits of watching instruction on your own time and then completing the “homework” in class with a little assistance from the teacher when necessary.
  • More classroom interaction. When I was teaching high school English, my curriculum was so jam-packed that I would often have to forego the fun classroom activity I had planned and just focus on relaying the important information. On these days, I felt more like a robot than a teacher, and I wondered how much my students had really learned as somewhat passive recipients of this information. I would have loved for my students to come into class having already received the information and ready to apply their knowledge.


  • Homework is homework. One issue I have with the idea of a flipped classroom is that assigning videos for students to watch on their own time is still homework. And like all homework assignments, only a percentage of them will be completed. If a student never watches the video lectures, then not only is he missing out on arguably the most important curriculum content, but class time will be wasted as well since he won’t have the prior knowledge to participate in assigned activities. All classroom models have their flaws, but I can’t help but wonder if this isn’t a particularly damaging one.
  • Lectures aren’t always necessary. Students learn differently, and lectures aren’t always the best approach for every student. In fact, many say that hands-on activities are more effective in helping children retain knowledge. If this flipped classroom pushes the traditional lecture format, then are we moving backwards instead of forwards in our understanding of how kids learn best?

As with all new educational trends, the question becomes: will the pros outweigh the cons? What do you think? Share your opinions in the comments section.

Happy Anniversary NCLB! That’s Quite a Legacy You’ve Left Behind….

What will No Child Left Behind’s legacy be?
o A focus on testing at all costs.
o Forget a well-rounded education – just teach reading and math.
o Schools who can’t reach an impossible goal are failures.
o A flawed attempt at education reform.
o Children left behind… end of story.

This month marks the ten year anniversary of one of the most controversial pieces of educational reform in history. In January of 2002, then President George W. Bush signed into law the No Child Left Behind Act, an update to the original 1965 Elementary and Secondary Act, where the idea of raising achievement and closing gaps first originated. In a recent interview George W. said he is “extremely proud of the effects of No Child Left Behind.”

Really? Proud of the effects? Proud that almost half of U.S. public schools aren’t meeting their Adequate Yearly Progress? Proud that elementary teachers have to sacrifice time for history, science, art, and music to spend more time on language arts and math? Proud that our highest achievers are no longer being pushed to excel?

I’m not one for bashing and name-calling, but when I was teaching in the classroom those four letters, N C L B, were like a four-letter word in my ears. The focus on test-taking and preparation has placed an unnecessary burden on teachers, schools, and the children sitting in their classrooms. For what? A test that gives a snapshot of performance on one day, in one format that may or may not be aligned to the child’s best learning style.

Teachers have been beaten down (metaphorically, of course) by the loss of authentic teaching experiences they once loved to share with their expectant students. Social studies, science, and art classes have been removed from the instructional minutes at many elementary schools. Special education teachers complain that they don’t get enough time to teach important life skills, because of the academic push to “bring up” this subgroup. And we are actually seeing less progress from our highest achievers; they are already in the Proficient or Advanced range, so they get overlooked in the monumental task of trying to bring up the scores of the rest of the students.

I have to give NCLB some credit. As much as I hate to admit it, No Child Left Behind has helped bring about some necessary changes in public schools. We have seen increased accountability for all students and sub-groups in public schools. The achievement gap is much smaller now than it was ten years ago. Without NCLB, we probably wouldn’t have seen higher achievement in schools with low-income, minority, and low-achieving students. We might not have award-winning reading intervention programs in place (where schools can afford them), and maybe we wouldn’t have RTI (Response To Intervention) strategies being used. Effective, research-based teaching methods such as Direct Interactive Instruction might never have been developed, as well as the mounds of research being done on effective strategies for working with special needs and English-language learners.

Is it realistic to expect ALL children to test Proficient or above by 2014? I think all children can improve and show progress towards goals, but I don’t think EVERY child’s best on a standardized test (especially a new English-learner or student with learning disabilities) will be Proficient. Schools with an API above 800 (which is really good) are hitting a plateau in test score gains now. They could have huge gains campus-wide, but be off a few points in one subgroup and not meet their target. And there are huge inconsistencies from state to state. What happens when the bar for “Proficient” isn’t the same in Wyoming as it is in Florida? How accurate is the national data, really, when each state has different standards, goals, and tests?

What is the future of NCLB? Congress can’t seem to fix it. It was designed to be revised after five or six years, but it still isn’t anywhere close to being revamped or reauthorized. Most people agree that changes are needed, but few can agree on how to best do it. One thing is clear – either all of the states need to get on the same page, with Common Core State Standards and national tests, or the federal government needs to be less involved so states can make the best decisions for their population.

Can we at least start with a better name? No Child Left Behind is so negative and fear-based. Watch out! We don’t want to leave anyone behind! This name evokes an image of a poor little kid running behind a moving school bus crying, “Wait! I’m right here!” I mean, where’s the optimism? You tell me, what do you think it should be called? I vote for “Every Child Succeeds Act” or “Success for Children Act”.

A Prologue to Red Apple Reading (aka: Why I Left the Classroom)

Those of you who know me may already know the story, or at least part of it, but I thought it would be appropriate to start this blog with a back-story, so you know where I am coming from.  I have no intention, however, to make this blog about me and my experiences – who wants to read that?  My hope is that it will develop into a place of sharing for educators and parents alike, a place where questions can be asked and answered, information can be shared, and positive vibes can emanate.

The story begins about fourteen years ago in a first grade classroom in a very large school district where I felt very small. My first six years of teaching were in first grade, where I became almost addicted to teaching reading. It was my favorite part of the curriculum. I loved reading stories to my class, and loved sitting with a small group at the back table during center time to teach phonics and guided reading. What I loved the most was watching that little light bulb go off in a first grader’s head when he finally figured it out – he figured out the “code” and was finally able to read! Ahh, those were the good ol’ days. 

Then I had the opportunity to leave the classroom and start a reading intervention program , a pull-out program in the school’s computer lab for 4th, 5th, and 6th graders. I loved the program, and my first-grade experience with reading helped when it came to filling in some gaps for those older students who were struggling. For the first time  I was able to see how difficult school could become for a child who couldn’t read fluently by third grade. I also saw how negative behaviors developed in kids as a coping mechanism, and a way to hide the fact that they could barely read. These were really great kids, and I enjoyed working with them every morning for their alternative language arts program.  This led me to a school change after a few years, to a middle school where I had hoped I would be using this same intervention program every class period to help struggling 7th and 8th graders. 

Wow, was I in for a culture shock!  I really have to hand it to middle school teachers, especially the ones I worked with at this very needy inner-city school. My first stumble was learning that I wouldn’t be using the reading program every class period, but I still needed to provide reading interventions. With what?  I was given no materials, no help, and I think some of the roughest kids I’ve ever come into contact with.  Don’t get me wrong, some of these students didn’t give me any trouble and I think they really wanted to learn.  The rest were gang members, drug dealers, and truants, and I started to feel more like a warden than a teacher.   Needless to say, my elementary school experience and quiet gentle nature didn’t get me very far in that assignment.

That was when I jumped ship to the much smaller school district of my new hometown. A new town, a fresh start, schools with much higher API scores – how could I go wrong? The administration, staff, and parents were all a breath of fresh air, and even the school district leaders were friendly people I actually became acquainted with over the course of four years.  I was asked to be on the school’s leadership team, to attend special district collaboration sessions, and even piloted another reading intervention program for my school. 

What I didn’t realize was that when schools are doing well, the school budget is tighter because the schools getting all of the federal funding are the ones doing poorly, thank you very much No Child Left Behind (I’ll save that rant for another blog post!). My fifth grade class averaged 35 students, and there was no money for classroom aides or a resource teacher. Lesson plans, preparation, and grading were sucking up all of my free time, the amount of paperwork was increasing, blah, blah, BLAH! I think just about all teachers are facing this dilemma these days.  But the straw that broke this camel’s back was the overwhelming frustration that I had a student in 5th grade who couldn’t read, and try as I might I could not get him the help he needed.  My heart broke for this kid.  Even with special education identification this boy was not getting the level of systematic phonics instruction that he needed to become a better reader. And with a classroom full of other students and 5th grade standards to teach, I didn’t have the time to do it myself. 

So I left the classroom, but I didn’t want to leave teaching – I love teaching children! It’s all of the other stuff that goes with it that was too frustrating.  I’m a teacher at heart, not a circus performer who jumps through hoops. One clear night while gazing up at the stars, I had an idea that hit me like a sledgehammer. I wanted to continue helping children learn how to read.  It’s what I knew, it’s what I loved. So why not make instructional reading software that ‘s fun AND uses the latest strategies in effective teaching? At that moment  Red Apple Reading  was born!

Since that fateful night over a year ago my life has been an exciting and challenging whirlwind of activity. Even though I spend a lot of time on this project, I love my new job as the guiding force of   Red Apple Reading, and I enjoy working with all of the wonderful people helping to make this dream a reality.  What dream?

The dream of helping as many children as possible learn how to read, by providing a wholesome, instructional, online reading program that’s fun and effective.

I promised myself I would not use this blog purely to promote my own product, but I do feel the need to get the word out about this latest greatest addition to the online children’s reading software market.  Red Apple Reading is in the testing phase and will be ready for sale soon, but in the meantime you can learn more about it by visiting our website:  Also check out our videos on YouTube on the Red Apple Reading channel, and keep an eye out for our Open House video series coming soon! Keep up with Red Apple news and read about the latest educational buzz on our Facebook page (please click the LIKE button!) or via our Twitter feed.  And stay tuned right here for more blogs on the latest in education, ways you can help children with reading, and of course you won’t want to miss my blog celebrating the 10th anniversary of the NCLB Act! I also welcome guest bloggers, comments, and discussions, so please feel free to join the educational forum.